Since its publication in 1998, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible has drawn critiques from apologists of Christian mission. A recent example appeared in the February 6, 2001, issue of The Mennonite, where Jim Bertsche, former executive secretary of Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, argued that Kingsolver presents a fundamentally distorted portrayal of Christian missionary work in Africa, even while several features of her novel may ring true--for instance, its recognition of the cultural blunders committed by Western church workers.1 Bertsche’s article in this issue of Mennonite Life portrays the reality of vital and growing church and mission life in Congo in the 1950s--a picture radically different than that found in Kingsolver’s novel.
While I don’t wish to focus on the question of Kingsolver’s historical accuracy, I sympathize with such critiques, for by claiming in her
Author’s Note to having rendered the
historical figures and events of Congo
as real as [she] could (ix), Kingsolver invites such analysis.2 One may well challenge the scope of the novel’s historical truthfulness when it embodies Christian mission in an abusive, monomaniacal, guilt-crazed, Baptist-but-Apocrypha-loving tyrant, Nathan Price, the ugly American whose wife and four daughters provide the five narrators for the story. Kingsolver offers the familiar disclaimer that her work is fiction and her characters are inventions, but she insists
the Congo in which I placed them is genuine (ix). But how realistic is her portrait of the Congo when its composition centers on such a flat character, such a predictable smudge of narrow-minded Christianity and Western imperialism?
While I agree that Kingsolver caricatures Christian mission, I wish to focus my critique on the novel’s literary faults. While deservedly praised for the richness of its female characters, whose multiple-voiced narration also lends the work its narrative complexity, Kingsolver’s thesis-mongering mars both of these features, overlaying their deft touches with clumsy ideological strokes. Even more problematic, I will argue, is what Kingsolver’s ideological focus does to her portrayal of Africa. Ironically, while this novel indicts Western colonialism generally and American foreign policy particularly--alleging that Eisenhower and the CIA orchestrated the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and installed his successor Joseph Mobutu--Kingsolver’s liberal sentiment is ultimately not interested in Africa itself, but rather in making Africa the scenic locale for the expression of its own liberal sentiment.
The ideological clumsiness that threatens the novel’s artistry appears in the opening pages. Immediately one encounters Kingsolver’s heavy-hand at work, hammering out the fearful symmetry of the abusive white male, the fundamentalist Christian zealot, and the ugly American, all incarnated in Nathan Price, the arch missionary villain. We hear first from Orleanna Price, Nathan’s long-suffering wife, who now recollects her family’s past experience in Africa. Through Orleanna’s opening narrative, Kingsolver makes sure she establishes the novel’s recurring metaphor: Africa as the abused wife of Western Male oppression. As Nathan’s spouse, suggests Orleanna, she may have been
the conqueror’s wife, but she was also
a conquest herself, as were the Africans under the Western Christian Male when
he [rode] in to vanquish the untouched tribes. In reference to all the
he’s of history who had ravaged the Congo, she compares post-colonial Africa to an abandoned wife:
He and all the profiteers . . . walked out on Africa as a husband quits a wife, leaving her with her naked body curled around the emptied-out mine of her womb (9).
I share Kingsolver’s moral outrage over the history of Western exploitation and intervention in the Congo, including American meddling during the Cold War. But the formula by which she advances her indictment blemishes the novel’s characterization.
Most obviously, the characterization of Nathan Price is disappointingly simplistic, so flat that it lacks any life. Kingsolver introduces the psychological motivation that would explain Nathan’s raging zeal, his guilt over surviving the death march in the Philippines, guilt which is then turned to an obsession that tramples his family under his missionary enterprise and targets Africans with his
baptismal fixation (96). Yet Kingsolver never explores this complexity, settling instead for a one-dimensional portrait. The weakness of such characterization is unintentionally noted by the novel’s own commentary, in a passage narrated by Nathan’s daughter Adah, a hemiplegic whose delightful intellectual perversity (nurtured by her love for Emily Dickinson) is manifest in her practice of reading backwards. When she turns her keen eye on her family, her youngest sister Ruth May, her eldest sister Rachel, her twin Leah and her mother Orleanna, she recognizes that only her father can be read one way:
Ruth May is not the same Ruth May she was. Yam Htur. None of us is the same: Lehcar, Hael, Hada. Annaelro. Only Nahtan remains essentially himself, the same man however you look at him. The others of us have two sides. (276)
Precisely. Only Nathan is the same backwards and forwards. The Alpha and the Omega of male abuse. He’s not a character; he’s Kingsolver’s all-powerful symbol: the demonic trinity of Father Price, Father Christianity, and Father America.
Not only does Kingsolver never explore (read backward, i.e., contemplate creatively) Nathan’s wartime experience, but also her characterization of him at times violates even this simplistic sketch of guilt-induced obsession. Midway through the novel, the Price family’s Congo village is overrun by swarms of marauding ants. Incredibly, Orleanna and her daughters must flee for their lives unassisted by Nathan, who is heard yelling somewhere about Moses and the Egyptians and running rivers of blood. His family at mortal risk, Nathan thinks only of preaching a sermon about Pharaoh and the plagues. In case readers might miss it, Kingsolver is sure to underscore the point through the mother’s dialogue, which emphasizes that Nathan abandoned his daughters to the army of ants. But how is this credible? A man haunted by guilt over the death of his comrades in combat, driven now to reclaim his manhood through evermore strenuous service, cowardly abandons his female family members to an army of ants? In her zeal to demonize Nathan, Kingsolver violates the credibility of his character.
She can do so because Nathan is not really a character but a crude stick figure. He is the bad man despoiling the African Queen. He must be punished, and Kingsolver provides the requisite show before the novel’s end. Since he is never realized as a living, believable human being, his death predictably reads like the burning of an effigy. As he literally burns on an old watchtower (scaffold?) left over from the days of Belgian colonization, we are to join Kingsolver in feeling all warm and snuggly by the fire because we too share her moral judgment. We too share her liberal sentiments. Bad, bad American man. Good, good Africa.
Unfortunately, in her zeal to demonize Nathan, Kingsolver also taints the credibility of the family’s other characters. After the novel’s opening section narrated by Orleanna, each of the daughters offers her account of the family’s flight to Africa, narrated in the present tense, as if recapturing their original perspective. Presumably representing their earlier innocence, the adoration or ignorance under which they submitted to Nathan’s powerful will, these accounts are marked by Kingsolver’s occasional intrusion. Impatient to unfold her indictment of Bad Father, Kingsolver interjects sarcasm that doesn’t credibly belong yet in the voices of these young characters.
Leah’s first chapter illustrates this breakdown. In her opening narration, Leah, whom we are to believe worships her father and his God blindly, offers sly ironies that defy this characterization. In the Georgia airport, when Father tries to comfort the family as they lighten their suitcases, throwing away items to get down to the airline’s weight limit, he offers a pious reference to the lilies of the fields--to which eldest Rachel mutters (and Kingsolver caustically intones),
I reckon the lilies need Bibles, though, and his darn old latrine spade (14). When the plane lands in Kilanga and Leah pronounces Africa
God’s Kingdom in its pure, unenlightened glory, one hears Kingsolver’s irony at play. Leah’s first chapter ends with her apparently affirming commentary:
My father, of course, was bringing the Word of God--which fortunately weighs nothing at all (19). With this statement Leah presumably voices her enthusiasm for her father’s mission, for she draws a favorable contrast between the weightless transcendence of scripture and the weighty materialism of cake mixes and other trifles that the family carried into Africa. And yet even here Kingsolver must show her hand, slipping in a sly suggestion that Nathan Price’s word is indeed empty.
As teenagers when they arrive in Africa, the three oldest daughters gradually drift further from their father’s will, but even during this credible unfolding of their maturing selves, Kingsolver violates believable characterization. In one episode near the family’s breakup and departure from Nathan, the family’s local servant, a young boy, stands outside their house whimpering, terrified by the curses that have been placed on the household. Leah, who by now has begun to redirect her earlier evangelical enthusiasm into social and political activism, defies her father’s order and ventures out to help him, exclaiming as she leaves,
and Father can go straight to hell. Rachel, narrating this account, adds that
the rest of us certainly agreed upon where Father could go straight to (358). For readers this makes for great fun--we can almost join in denouncing this ass of a father with a
go to hell. But is it credible? From Rachel it is--she’s a cynic and opportunist. It’s certainly dark enough (though not clever enough) for Adah’s mind. But are we to believe that five-year-old Ruth May, raised under fundamentalist Christianity, would echo this damnation of her father, even if it’s uttered as a thoughtless curse?
Thus, what is the novel’s finest achievement (and it is fine indeed), its multiple-voiced exploration of a missionary family drama, is marred by the caricature of the father. In Kingsolver’s defense, one might note that all novelists make choices about which characters to explore most fully. Shouldn’t Kingsolver have the right to develop the female characters and use Nathan more symbolically to advance her critique of arrogant Western intervention in the Congo? Well, yes, of course, although her choice to demonize Nathan actually undermines the credibility of her family portrait. The more important question is what does her strategy actually do to Africa?
Lee Siegel, writing in the New Republic, offers the following evaluation of The Poisonwood Bible:
Barbara Kingsolver does not finally give a hoot about Africa. She does not care about Africa (I mean, intelligently and respectfully care, with a sense of its alterity and its complexity.3 Readers of the work might find this accusation startling since much of the novel’s final third casts the lives of the Price women against the backdrop of the Cold War geopolitical struggles of Congo in the early 1960s. Surely a novel so devoted to implicating American imperialism is interested in Africa, right? Well, no. Not when the novel is ultimately interested not in Africa but in a white American woman’s good-hearted morality tale.
Repeatedly in this novel Kingsolver resorts to a tired, predictable formula that casts victimized female goodness against the three-headed monster of western patriarchy, embodied in Nathan Price, of course. He is at once the abusive father; the ugly American (fatherland), and the judgmental Christian (
Our Father, Adah calls him). In this formulation, Africa is repeatedly cast as the victimized wife. Orleanna laments:
I was [Nathan’s] instrument, his animal. . . . A wife is the earth itself, changing hands, bearing scars (89). And again: Nathan is likened to
a wrathful God who’d just as soon dangle us all from a hook, in a passage hinting at his physical abuse (96). And again: Nathan’s only concept of relating to a daughter is to
own her like a plot of land. To work her, plow her under, rain down a dreadful poison upon her (191). And again, writing about her marriage:
In the end, my lot was cast with the Congo. Poor Congo, barefoot bride of men who took her jewels and promised the Kingdom (201). And again: Nathan’s ignorant Christian evangelizing is likened to Eisenhower’s American meddling is likened to
Grandfather Jehovah’s judging (297-98). And again, when Kingsolver treats analogically Congo’s disintegration under American influence and her own fall from pre-marital independence:
Maybe the tragedy began on the day of my wedding, then. Or even earlier, when I first laid eyes on Nathan at the tent revival. A chance meeting of strangers, and the end of the world unfolds (317, 323). And again:
To resist occupation, whether you’re a nation or merely a woman, you must understand the language of your enemy (383). And yet again:
The United States has now become the husband of Zaire’s economy, and not a very nice one. Exploitive and condescending. . . (456).
Let me suggest by way of Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, why Kingsolver’s approach is finally no more respectful of Africa than it is of Christian mission. Among his many accomplishments, Achebe is recognized for his critique of The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s acclaimed 1899 novel set in the Belgian Congo. Achebe’s critique is too detailed to elaborate here, but I think his central argument can inform one’s response to Kingsolver as well. Achebe acknowledges that Conrad’s novel attacks colonialism and locates the heart of moral darkness in European civilization; so like Kingsolver’s novel, Conrad’s famous work has the
right politics, an indictment of Western colonialism.
But what angers Achebe is Conrad’s exploitation of Africa as merely a symbolic backdrop for his tale about the psychological and moral deterioration of a European ivory trader. Achebe writes:
[Defenders of Conrad’s novel] will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives, that the point of the story is to ridicule Europe’s civilizing mission in Africa. . . . [But] the point . . . [is] Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. . . . Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?4
To a lesser degree, Kingsolver’s novel is vulnerable to the same basic critique. Kingsolver is not interested in the complexities of a real Africa, any more than she is interested in the complexities of a real husband or a real Baptist missionary. In her novel, African men too are simple: either simple tools of Western imperialism (Mobutu), or simply good--Lumumba, saint; Anatole, Leah’s nice hubby.
For Kingsolver, Africa is not only the backdrop for the break-up of a petty American mind--Nathan Price’s. For her, Africa is also the scenic locale for the emergence of American female minds--the surviving Price women. In an interview for the Christian Science Monitor, discussing her strategy of using multiple voices and perspectives in her book, Kingsolver discussed why she chooses not to represent the internal life of characters who differ from her in culture or gender. Explaining why Nathan Price has no voice, she said:
It’s fairly subtle . . . but if you pay attention in my writing, the characters in whose heads you are are virtually always female, and they’re virtually always from my background.5
Thus it’s no surprise that of all the characters in the book, only Kingsolver’s American female heroines are granted the dignity of complexity, of inner struggle. If you pay attention to Kingsolver’s writing, she’s interested in characters like herself, women who domesticate and assimilate distant tragedies into a personal, feminine American self.
For all her moral outrage over Western Man’s history in Africa, Kingsolver too has colonized Africa, appropriated it for her own interests. Her story may vanquish the patriarchal trinity of Father Price, Father Christianity, and Father America, but she’s simply replaced the old boss with a new one. But now, instead of Africa in the hands of bad American man, we have Africa in the heart of good American woman. And Africa is still being had.